Better to be Frustrated than Bored

Jan 23, 2017 by

For all of you who have taught students, you know that one of the rewards is seeing the “Aha moments” that students experience. One of the downsides (to instructors) of teaching online is that it is hard to “see” the reward of the “aha” in the same fulfilling way.

The reason we should care about the aha moments that students experience is that this kind of moment is tied closely to an emotional feeling. And memories with emotional attachments tend to be stronger (more memorable) than ones with no emotional attachment.

But have you ever stopped to think about what is going on right before the aha moment? Does the aha moment come after a well-organized lecture, a step-by-step example, a period of boredom, or a period of confusion or frustration?

An aha moment typically comes after a period of confusion or frustration. This means that you have to put students into that space where they are actually at the edge of what they know (the confusion/frustration space) to nudge them over to insights.

Anyways, I digress. I want to share findings from this paper: Better to Be Frustrated than Bored: The Incidence, Persistence, and Impact of Learners’ Cognitive-Affective States during Interactions with Three Different Computer-Based Learning Environments (Baker, et al, 2010).

The researchers set out to focus on cognitive-affective states that were hypothesized to influence cognition and deep learning: boredom, confusion, delight, engaged concentration, frustration, and surprise. The researchers use Russell’s Core Affect framework (2003) to map these states in two dimensions: valence (pleasure to displeasure) and arousal (activation to deactivation).

In this study, the researchers examined:

  • the cognitive-affective states the students experienced during the learning process
  • how those states persist over time (e.g. do students move from boredom to frustration more often than frustration to boredom?)
  • how the state affects the students choices on how to interact with the system (e.g. what causes students to game the system?)

While I will leave you to read the whole paper if you want all the details (the methodology involves three different interactive learning systems and three different methodologies), I think the nuance of definitions between a few of these terms is important. As defined in the paper:

  • frustration is dissatisfaction or annoyance
  • confusion is a noticeable lack of understanding
  • engaged concentration is a state of engagement with a task such that concentration is intense, attention is focused, and involvement is complete

Now let’s jump ahead to (what I consider to be) some of the interesting results. Engaged concentration was the most common state during the observation periods (60%) followed by confusion (13%). While boredom was only observed about 4-6% of the time, it was also the most persistent state (once bored, the student stays bored) across all three learning systems.

Within two of the systems where “gaming the system” was observed, a more in-depth analysis was performed. Boredom was significantly more likely to lead to gaming the system. Guess what wasn’t likely to lead to gaming the system … confusion, frustration, and surprise. Better to be confused than bored, huh?

There is quite a bit of new research being performed on the role of confusion in learning, but my gut feeling here is that confusion leads to self-insight, and learning gained through self-insight (because this is the aha where emotions are attached) should be stickier than learning delivered through other states.

Challenge: Vigilantly watch for states of boredom in your classes, and when you find them, intervene. Do something different. Put students into a space where they are challenged and maybe even a little confused. Give the learners a chance to grapple with the concepts and have those moments of self-insight.

Reference:

Baker, R. S., D’Mello, S. K., Rodrigo, M. M. T., & Graesser, A. C. (2010). Better to be frustrated than bored: The incidence, persistence, and impact of learners’ cognitive–affective states during interactions with three different computer-based learning environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68(4), 223-241.

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Celebrate the Errors in Math Practice

Jan 11, 2017 by

Dear math students,

As you work through your mathematics practice, I’m going to challenge you to embrace making errors in an entirely new way. 

Many students believe that every problem in math homework should be perfectly constructed with no errors. It might look something like this:

A nicely ordered problem solution with no mistakes.

 

But when it’s time to study after the initial problem run-through, what does this perfectly constructed problem say? Does it coach you on remembering how you struggled? Does it remind you where you made an error? No.

When you make an error as you’re working a problem, please don’t erase it from the face of the earth. Certainly you should learn from the struggle and complete a correct solution, but record your deviations from the straightforward solution path in another color. Leave yourself notes (also in a different color) to remind you what you should have paid more attention to the first time around. Maybe that would look something like this:

Worked problem with highlights and notes to self

 

 

Sometimes you’re going to recognize but you don’t have the right answer but you’re not going to be sure what’s gone wrong. You should always try first to figure it out yourself first. This process of error analysis in a variety of different situations is key to developing problem solving skills in mathematics. Without exploration of the problem space (which happens with error analysis), your brain is just recording rote procedures without the ability to transfer those procedures to new kinds of problems. It will, essentially, stunt your mathematical growth.

Now, I don’t want you to get to the point of tears or breaking your keyboard out of anger. If you get near that stage please just ask a question (email, discussions, chat-a-friend, etc), leave a sticky note on the page as a reminder to go back, and move on to the next problem or section of problems. Just switching to a slightly different problem can not only get you unstuck, but sometimes give you insights into the “stuck” problem. 

When you figure out how to do the problem you were stuck on, make sure to go find that flagged problem (remember the sticky note?) and annotate your corrections.

Worked math problem with cross-outs and restarts and notes to self.

 

Now you might be thinking “why do all these error corrections and problem annotating in another color?” When it comes time to study for your major assessments, you will be able to see the places where you stumbled the first time you tried the problem. These “notes to self” are the places where you’re most likely to make the same mistake again. They benchmark places to remember to be careful and show you problem types to repeat practice before an exam.

Celebrate your errors.

Embrace the messiness.

Learn from your mistakes.

Study from your struggle points.

And be great at mathematics!

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The Deliberate Practice Experiment

Jan 7, 2017 by

For some inspiration to try a more active approach to learning, I thought I would share a short video from Dr. Carl Wieman, who is a Nobel Laureate, a physicist, and more recently a researcher in learning science. Wieman has designed and run some very elegant experiments to demonstrate the effects of active learning techniques. Consider this one:

What happens if you run two classes for a week with the same learning objectives, the same time in class, and the same assessment. Prior to the experiment, you take care to ensure that the student makeup and performance is very similar up to this point. One class continues on, lecture-style, with a veteran instructor with lots of experience. The other class is assigned a freshly-minted PhD trained to lead the students in learning via deliberate practice (an active learning strategy). The courses meet under these conditions for the exact same time.

The technique of deliberate practice takes the form of a series of challenging questions and tasks. This forces students to spend their class time thinking scientifically, discussing concepts, critiquing each other’s predictions, and engaging in problem solving.

To see how this (and a few other elegant experiments) turn out, take the 15 minutes to watch the video: Finding New Ways to Learn Science.

Really … watch the video. Student pushback against these strategies is a real issue and usually worst at the beginning of the semester. We can all use a good foundational reminder about why we continue to strive to lead more active learning sessions in our classes.

It is also well worth the time to read the very well-designed study, Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class, mentioned in the video.

Challenge: Consider the deliberate practice model described above. Where can you tackle a learning objective through a series of challenging questions and tasks instead of with lecture? Give yourself that extra nudge to try just a little more activity (or to build in just a little more activity).

Reference:

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864.

Reminder: You can sign up to receive the Weekly Teaching Challenge in your email or share it with a friend.

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To Focus on Learning, Use Words Not Section Numbers

Dec 30, 2016 by

Since many faculty are now approaching that time when syllabi get written and course shells get built, let’s focus on a very simple change that can increase student attention to learning the vocabulary and learning objectives/goals associated with the subject.

Take examine your syllabus, schedule, and course shell looking for places where you could have written the name of the course, the topics, or the learning objectives in words, but didn’t do it. When schedules and other course materials are passed out without any reference to the vocabulary of the subject, you are missing a great chance to put that vocabulary and learning objectives/goals front and center for your learners.

Consider this real course schedule I saw recently (altered a bit to protect the identity of the course and college).

This schedule contains no course name, no topics in words, and no learning goals. My course schedules used to look like this too (although they did at least have the name of the course at the top). But then I took a deep dive into how we learn vocabulary a couple years ago. Now I use every opportunity to engage students with the words that describe the topic and the learning goals.

This schedule was a golden opportunity for introducing (repeating) vocabulary and focusing on learning objective … and it was missed. Let’s look at a example of the same schedule with vocabulary and focus on learning objectives.

Now every day on the schedule has context to it, and the student is reminded of the language associated with the topic on every viewing of the schedule. If the student is making a judgement call about whether to skip class (face it, they do) or how long to procrastinate on doing their assigned homework, the context of what is in the schedule is very helpful to them. If they recognize no words in the topic, or recall that they have never figured it out in the past (dev math), then they have additional incentive to show up, leave more time to complete, etc.

The reality is that if we want students to actually learn the vocabulary of our subject area, they have to encounter the vocabulary as often as possible. They have to read the vocabulary like they will see it in context, and do that as much as possible. This repeated encounter helps them to begin to see the contrast between important differences. In the example above, there is a difference between solving equations and solving inequalities. The repeated exposure to those as two separate topics helps the student to begin to separate “equations” and “inequalities” as two distinct topics with rules associated with the overlap and contrast between them.

Working with the vocabulary and learning objectives is also helpful to faculty. Instructors need to see more than a section number as they plan out the learning for the semester. We’ve all encountered texts where one section is not equal to one hour of class. Writing out the learning topics / objectives gives the instructor a chance to reflect on where there needs to be supplementary learning activities and where the topic is actually too “lite” for a whole day of class. By planning for this natural fluctuation up front (assuming one has experience teaching the course on a previous occasion), it is more likely that the pacing of the course will match the real learning of the students.

Challenge: Take a fresh look at your syllabus, schedules and/or course shell. Find opportunities to place vocabulary and learning objectives/goals in more prominent locations.

Note: A weekly bite of learning design and a challenge goes out every week. If you’d like to have it delivered to your inbox, sign up at Weekly Teaching Challenge.

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The Importance of Findability for Learners

Dec 16, 2016 by

How do you feel when you go to find information on a website, and you just can’t find it? This happens to me all the time when I want to find out what some new ed-tech wonder product does, and I visit the website and can’t see any screenshots, any descriptions, or any videos of the product in action. I find it incredibly frustrating and this story generally ends by me giving up on even signing up for a trial. The same thing happens to students when they go to find information and it is buried in a non-sensical place.

As everyone finishes a semester, and prepares documents and course shells for the next, it seems a good time to share this article, The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course QualityWhile the research targeted online courses, many face-to-face courses are now accompanied by a myriad of resources that live in an LMS course shell and I think there are also implications for findability in course packets and syllabi as well.

For this article, one of the researchers, Dr. David Robins, User Experience Design professor at Kent State University, has presented the study in a webinar format available on YouTube. Their research question: What happens when students have trouble finding components of a course?


 

The researchers took two courses that were well-designed and passed Quality Matters standards, and then “broke” them in terms of findability. The broken courses still technically passed QM standards, but the components were harder to find. Students were asked to perform scenario-based tasks in the online courses.

Sidenote: If you’ve never seen a standard software usability test, here’s a nice “findability fail reel” for a mobile website with questionable usability.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find that poor findability correlated with decreased self-efficacy and decreased motivation. However, there was an interesting set of actionable findings regarding navigation and visual design that came from researchers watching participants attempt to navigate the courses. Consider looking for these types of things in your course or syllabus and then improving them:

  • navigation items that are not grouped into logical categories
  • poor labeling (e.g. using the file name instead of a true description)
  • poor categorization (e.g. placing an exam review under “Course Documents” instead of in the section labeled “Prepare for the Exam”)
  • deeply buried content (e.g. syllabus is buried four levels deep)

This article also got me thinking about whether the most important items of a syllabus might be presented in a more 21st-century-friendly manner. There is a whole rabbit hole of syllabi created as infographics on the Interwebs.

Probably your university is still going to want an old-fashioned text version, but maybe students could use more visual infographics for what I would consider the top-5 syllabus items of interest to students:

  • How is this course graded?
  • What are tests like?
  • Are there any projects or papers?
  • Do I have to attend class?
  • Is there group work?

As well as the additional syllabus items that instructors want them to know:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • Why should you care about what you are going to learn in this class?
  • How strict is this instructor on deadlines?
  • What is considered good/bad behavior in this class?
  • What are the instructor’s pet peeves? (come on, that’s a real thing and whole chapters of your syllabi get devoted to these issues)

Challenge: Take a fresh look at your syllabus and/or course shell. Assume that you do have findability issues and look for them. If you don’t think you have them, had over the questions above to a friend or family member and see how long it takes them to find the key components. Revise and improve the findability of important components to lower student frustration for the next semester.

Note: A weekly bite of learning design and a challenge goes out every week. If you’d like to have it delivered to your inbox, sign up at Weekly Teaching Challenge.

Reference:

Simunich, B., Robins, D. B., & Kelly, V. (2015). The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course Quality. American Journal of Distance Education, 29(3), 174-185.


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